Playing Pepper 2020: New York Mets

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

These answers were obtained before (or very soon after) spring training was halted and Opening Day was delayed.  Obviously, things may be very different when baseball returns but my hope is that this gives you a good feel for the Mets, even if some specific items may be affected.

New York Mets
86-76, third in NL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

There always seems to be something around the Mets.  As camps opened, it was reported that the sale of the team had fallen through and the Wilpons would look for a different buyer.  What that buyer might be taking on is our discussion topic this afternoon.  The Mets had a solid year, but the NL East is a tough division and it’s not likely to get any easier.  Can they climb over another squad and get back into October?  These Mets bloggers will give us their opinions!  (Please note Mack responded before the sale to Steve Cohen fell through.)

Blogger Site Twitter
Mack Ade Mack's Mets JohnMackinAde
Michael Ganci The Daily Stache dailystache
Niko Goutakolis Mets Plus NikoGoutakolis
Greg Prince Faith and Fear in Flushing greg_prince
Jon Lewin Subway Squawkers subwaysquawkers
AC Wayne publicrecord

C70: Carlos Beltran came and went as manager without ever seeing the field. What are your thoughts on how all that came to be and how confident are you Luis Rojas will be a good replacement?

Mack: The Beltran mess caught the Mets brass with their pants dropped. They confronted Carlos who said he was not a part of this. Everyone walked away with the opinion that this would be impossible to not have knowledge of this. When MLB released their initial statement and the only player mentioned was Beltran. At that point, his goose was cooked, but in typical Mets form (sic) they took days to take the cooked goose out of the water.

As for Rojas, he is a highly successful minor league manager that has managed multiple Mets teams into the playoff. I’ve known him since his playing days in Savannah. A calming influence who will not become the story. I think his promotion to the majors is long overdo and I love the choice.

Michael: It’s a shame how it all played out, because I think Carlos would have been a good fit, but he did what he did, and now it’s time to pay the piper. I do think it’s unfortunate that he was the fall guy while players like Jose Altuve ultimately wore buzzers and can continue to move forwarded unscathed (other than the HBP coming this year.) But, business is business and it’s time to move on. Even though it’s a crappy situation, everyone who knows Luis Rojas, including ex-manager Mickey Callaway, sings his praises. He’s coached many of these current Mets in the minor leagues, and the excitement for his hiring in the clubhouse was undeniable. I like his even-keeled demeanor. I think he’ll be just fine. 

Niko: Carlos Beltran will definitely go down as a great answer to a trivia question in Mets history. On a large scale, it’s unfortunate, as Beltran is still one of the Mets all-time great position players, but I’m not sure how the Mets move forward from here with him. Now that Spring Training is here, seeing the massive storm cloud that is circulating above the Astros, it’s clear that replacing him with Luis Rojas was the right choice. I have confidence in Rojas, and am happy they went with someone within the organization.

Greg: For the trivia-minded, the big question during the winter was do we count Beltran as the 22nd manager in Mets history and Rojas as the 23rd, or do we skip from Callaway to Rojas, never acknowledging Beltran? I’m comfortable calling Rojas the second 22nd manager in Mets history.

On a more substantive level, the boulder rolled downhill so fast from the Monday Rob Manfred announced suspensions to the Thursday Beltran and the Mets announced their “mutual” parting of ways that, in retrospect, there was no other outcome imaginable. In the middle of it, though, it didn’t seem the Mets would be touched by an Astros scandal. (I wrote about it with a few days’ perspective here if anybody’s interested.)

Rojas may not have been the first choice, but I do believe he is a fine choice. His relationship with the players, from when he paid his minor league managerial dues, seems to have engendered enthusiasm and loyalty from many of the current players he had along the way. He was around last year as quality control coach, so he’s not an utterly unfamiliar face in general (that role shows the trust the front office had in him as their dugout liaison). His pedigree as an Alou is value-added. From what one can tell from a distance, the man knows his baseball. The day-to-day drumbeat (if not banging on a trash can) of dealing with a persistent big-city media will be new to him, but I don’t think it’s a ravenous beast. It’s just always there. My guess is
he gets used to it and deals with it. The rest is up to his players.

Jon: Carlos Beltran made five All-Star teams as a Met and held a share of the team’s single-season home run record until Pete Alonso came along. I was looking forward to Beltran the manager strengthening his ties to the Mets and making it more likely that, if he made the Hall of Fame, there would be a Met cap on his plaque.

So much for that. The Mets had to replace Beltran as manager after he was named in commissioner Rob Manfred’s report. By the way, when the Mets were hiring Mickey Callaway as manager, one of the people they interviewed was Alex Cora.

As for Luis Rojas, he’s probably a better choice than Beltran. While Beltran had no managerial experience, Rojas was Manager of the Year in the South Atlantic League and won a Dominican Winter League championship as manager. But there was another managerial candidate this year who has won a championship and Manager of the Year, and his championship was in New York. Somehow, GM Brodie Van Wagenen passed on Joe Girardi.

AC: As the old saying goes, ‘sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.’ What transpired under Carlos Beltran’s very brief tenure, I believe, helped the Mets more than it hurt them. I’m ready to give Rojas a chance. He paid his dues down in the minors and with that experience, created ‘real’ relationships with the Jeff McNeils of the world. He comes from a good baseball pedigree and has been with the Mets organization for quite some time. Why not?

C70: There was a lot of trade talk around Noah Syndergaard last season. Will that be quieter this year or do you think he could get moved?

Mack: I believe Syndergaard is safe and an extension to his current pre-arbitration salary will be worked out as soon as the proposed new owner, Steve Cohen, gets to pull on some strings.

Michael: Noah Syndergaard was not blameless in last year’s shenanigans. Instead of buckling down and figuring out what issues he and Wilson Ramos had, he made a public spectacle out of things and ultimately made a fool out of himself. The Mets know they need Wilson Ramos in the lineup because of his bat, and apparently the two have made strides to repair their pitcher/catcher relationship. The only way I see Noah’s name floated around is if the Mets absolutely tank, which I do not see happening. If he steps his game up, I see the more plausible scenario being the Mets think about talking extension, but it will take some serious dollars to get that done, even with his inconsistency from time to time.

Niko: I’d like to see him stay, selfishly, for a rather unorthodox reason: I feel like when he takes the limelight with the media in New York (which Noah enjoys), it takes the pressure off Jacob deGrom, somewhat. As an impartial viewer, I believe this will be his last year in a Mets uniform, and he might get moved at the deadline, but that’s still a long time away.

Greg: Brodie Van Wagenen says Syndergaard is off the trade talk table. I’d take that as far as I could throw it, given that one phone call from an anxious GM elsewhere can easily reset the table. But it hasn’t been a topic of conversation in Spring Training, and it’s presumably allowing Noah to prepare in a greater state of placidity. If the Mets are contending in the first half, and Syndergaard is contributing, I don’t see this as an issue. If the Mets are floundering, and Syndergaard is at least healthy, I can’t imagine he won’t be a trade target and that it won’t come up again. He’s a great asset from any angle.

Jon: Fortunately, the trade talk around Syndergaard has quieted down. Unfortunately, there is now trade talk around Steven Matz. Not that Matz should be untouchable, but the notion that the Mets have so much rotation depth that they can trade a starter is ridiculous. There are reasons Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha were available on one-year deals. And Matz is the only lefthander among the Mets’ starters.

Instead of exploring trades of starters who have not reached their potential, the Mets should try to figure out why other teams think they can do a better job than the Mets of helping pitchers like Zack Wheeler (who got the fourth-richest contract in free agency this year) reach their potential.

AC: I think the possibility of him getting moved is definitely still on the table. He’s been championed as a hero for quite a few years now, yet hasn’t reached his original level of success, and there are only so many chances that both fans and management are willing to give someone before they’re forced to hit the road.

C70: How in the world does Pete Alonso follow up that rookie year?

Mack: I don’t think it will be easy at all. The Polarbear is now a marked man and I expect pitchers to try and pitch around him. My guess is his home runs will dropped to the 30-35 range, unless someone like a healthy Yoenis Cespedes can follow him in the lineup.

Michael: This is a wonderful question, but I think Pete’s just gotta keep being Pete. I think he’s going to get a lot more breaking pitches this year, and a big key for him is to not chase. If he’s patient, takes his walks and locks in on his spots, there’s no reason Pete can’t be in for a similar season as 2019. It doesn’t hurt that the Mets have a pretty stacked lineup, so teams will not likely be pitching around him too much.

Niko: I don’t know if he does, truth be told. He’s had a subpar Spring Training thus far, and doesn’t look to be in as good of shape as some of the other players that have something to prove. With that being said, Pete Alonso is a raw talent, and I still expect him to put up good numbers, but as a betting man, I don’t think the home run total will reach 40 this year.

Greg: Deep breaths, I imagine. As mature a kid as Pete was as a rookie, it’s still daunting to imagine trying to match let alone top what he did in 2019. I think the support system he has in Queens (the team is defined by its close-knit core of youngsters, a group he seems to be the heart of) and the good head on his shoulders suggests he won’t overly pressure himself to a “54 homers or bust” view of the world. The fact that he talked about continually improving his defense as his goal and the fact that he sounds pretty much the same as he did last September gives me hope that the so-called sophomore slump will be some other guy’s problem somewhere else.

Jon: It is rare for a player to have two 50-homer seasons in a career, much less in consecutive seasons. I’m hoping for a solid season with 35 or so homers and good health, which cannot be taken for granted with what is going on across town with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton

AC: Great question, he doesn’t! I mean really, as a longtime Mets fans, I’ve learned to take everything with a grain of salt. I’m confident that he’ll get his share of home runs and plenty of rib-eye steaks. But to think he’s capable of replicating all that went into last season? No way! It can only happen once, that’s what made it so special. And we love him for it. But it’s a tall order, no matter how much he’s willing. Wishing him the best.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Mack: Tough question. The NL East has really stepped up in the last year. The Braves, Phillies, and Nationals have all improved on their 25-man. I have the Braves winning the division while the champ Nats make the playoffs via a wild card. My guess is the Mets and Phillies will fight it out for the second wild card.

Michael: I expect a dogfight. Despite the Nationals winning the World Series and having a solid young core of guys like Trea Turner, Victor Robles and Juan Soto, I don’t think a repeat is on the horizon. In fact, I think the Braves are the best team in the division. So, if you held a gun to my head (which I prefer you don’t) I’d say the Braves win the division, and the Mets and Nationals are playing the one-game wildcard.

Niko: I’m not overly optimistic about the team this year; things will probably start slow like last year, but collectively they are wild card worthy. I’d say 86 wins, which should get us into a spot. I also believe the other wild card team will come from the National League East. 

Greg: All I ever hope for is a legitimately contending team, and I think this team is a contender. Solid lineup. Best starting pitcher in the league in deGrom. A bullpen that can’t possibly be worse. Defense that appears marginally better. I have to believe they have a shot. I also have to believe Washington, Atlanta and Philadelphia will be tough. I’ll be an optimist and say they’re a division winner in the making…though you won’t mistake me for Joe Namath in the guarantees department.

Jon: 88 wins. Third place. 

AC: I’d like to say that I have high expectations but as a Mets fan, I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. Yes, they finished strong last season. And yes, they have a very solid rotation and a well-balanced lineup. If I had to make a prediction, I’d say third place, somewhere around .500 and a chance at one of the WC spots.

C70: What’s the main topic Mets fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Mack: The proposed new ownership that will remove the Wilpon family as the controlling interest. New Yorkers hate the owners of their failed pro teams and the Mets probably rank first here.

Michael: The closer. Edwin Diaz was the best of the best before he got to Flushing, and the Mets added Dellin Betances to add a reinforcement to what was a beleaguered bullpen last year. Personally, I still think the ninth-inning job is Diaz’s to lose, but he won’t be on as solid ground as he was coming into last season. The Mets have guys who can step in, including the aforementioned Betances, Seth Lugo and even Jeurys Familia, who once eclipsed 50 saves as a Met. Plus, Familia has shown up to camp leaner and meaner, so maybe that ultimately pays dividends.

Niko: The bullpen is always pivotal, especially so for the Mets. The 2007, 2008, 2016 and 2019 Mets all fizzled out because of their bullpen problems, and there are some question marks this year as well. Will Diaz bounce back? Can Familia be an effective setup man and stay healthy? Will Rojas use Robert Gsellman and Lugo effectively? 

Greg: We always talk about injuries, the bullpen and the Wilpons, expecting all three to implode on us to devastating effect. But when we’re allowing ourselves a touch of giddiness, we talk about what a revelation Jeff McNeil is. He’s not exactly a secret, having made the All-Star team, but he seems a little underknown to the outside world. Watch the damage he does to first pitches and see if he settles into a full-time third baseman or if he continues to make a mark as something of a rover.

Jon: Will the Wilpons actually sell the team? Last month, after Steve Cohen’s bid to buy the Mets fell through, the Mets’ owners said they were still looking to “pursue a new transaction.” Meanwhile, Met fans continue to wait for ownership willing to give a big-market team a big-market payroll. 

AC: Ooh, that’s a tough one. I don’t know, who’ll have more at-bats this season, Yoenis Cespesdes or Jed Lowrie? Or, maybe it’s will the Wilpons ever give up majority control of the team and still want to run it. Hold on, I’m channeling a real scenario here: Just stay healthy.

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Mack: I look forward to the days that this team stops operating on the cheap. The Wilpons invested heavily in Bernie Madoff and the team went south operations wise ever since. New York is the number one media market and we’ve operated like we are located in 1990 not 2020. Fans are drooling over the possibility of signing guys like George Springer and J.T. Realmuto. I drool over that also.

Michael: Honestly, I love watching the home-grown guys. But I am going to stray from the pack here. I am looking forward to seeing which disappointing player from last year turns a corner. The contenders? Jed Lowrie, Robinson Cano and Jeurys Familia. I think Cano is the best bet to make a big impact on the Mets in 2020, but time will tell.

Niko: I give this answer most years, and it’s really the most wholesome one I can give: just being at the ballpark. I love traveling to watch baseball, it’s such a majestic sport. There’s simply no better way to unwind after work than going to a Mets game after a long day (so long as you don’t have a backpack, which are banned this year).

Greg: Getting to Opening Day, obviously, then getting past a potentially brutal first quarter of the schedule. The Mets play 28 of their first 40 games versus playoff teams from last year. Even understanding last year is last year and this year is a new year, that’s quite a challenge.

In a less transactional sense, I’m excited for May 17, when the Mets induct their overdue next class of Hall Famers — Edgardo Alfonzo, Ron Darling and Jon Matlack — and June 13 — when they retire 36 for Jerry Koosman. With former PR chief (and eternal Met legend) Jay Horwitz dedicated to alumni relations, the Mets have made incredible strides on the history & heritage aspect of their franchise, and no matter where they are in the standings, I consider that a championship move.

Jon: I’m looking forward to watching Jacob deGrom go for a third straight Cy Young Award and build a case to be a future Hall of Famer. deGrom did not make the majors until age 26, so he still needs to put up several more strong seasons, but a third Cy would put him in the conversation. Of the ten pitchers with three or more Cy Youngs, all are in the Hall except for Roger Clemens and current players Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer.  

AC: First and foremost, I hope there is a season. If there is, what I’m I looking forward to most? All of it. The highs, the lows. The worst it can get, the best it can get. Just stay healthy, can you see a pattern brewing here?

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